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Unitary Authority (Shropshire)

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2008

This is an important debate on funding for the proposed unitary authority in Shropshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and I had a terrible battle on our hands to try to prevent a unitary authority from going ahead. The best comment on the matter, which I read in today’s Evening Standard, was from the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, who said it is one of the most cynical policies of the Labour Government, ignoring the wishes of local people. Regardless of that, we will now have a unitary authority.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I shall make very few criticisms of him and the Labour Government; rather, I will stick to the key issues that I would like him to consider surrounding future funding for the county. However, I should like to press him on one issue. The reason why I was against a unitary authority is that I feel passionately about local accountability to my constituents in Shrewsbury. It was important that only councillors who lived in Shrewsbury and who were accountable to my constituents through the ballot box could make decisions on key issues that affect Shrewsbury.

We have many controversial matters before us in Shrewsbury, including co-location of the two colleges and plans for a huge incinerator. I would argue that Shrewsbury has the best and most experienced councillors in the county, so I hope that many of them will have senior positions on the new unitary authority. However, my first question to the Minister is: what mechanism is in place to protect a county town such as Shrewsbury in a unitary authority? We find ourselves with only a third of the councillors in the new authority, so we could be outvoted by the rest of the county on the incinerator issue, for example. It is easy for councillors who live 30, 35 or 40 miles away to vote for an incinerator to be built in Shrewsbury; obviously, it will not be built in their backyard and they will not be held to account through the ballot box, because their constituents might live 30 miles away from the town. I hope that some form of mechanism, certainly when it comes to planning law, will protect a county town such as Shrewsbury from the overwhelming votes of other parts of a county.

We are going to have a unitary authority, and I am determined to make the most of it. The only downside is that there were no elections this month. We were due to have elections in May—we had elections every year in Shrewsbury—but, regrettably, because we will have a unitary authority, the Government decided that we would not have those elections. They will instead take place next May, when the unitary authority comes into place. With the drubbing that the Labour party got in the May elections, in which they lost hundreds of councillors, I believe that the Conservatives could have made a few gains in Shrewsbury. We already have a big majority on the council, but it worries me—the Minister may scoff—that some Labour councillors in Shrewsbury will continue in office when they might not have been councillors if the elections had gone ahead. I say that not to have a go at the Labour party, but to urge the Minister to think again in future when such organisations are introduced. Are such things legitimate, no matter what the difficulties of holding an election only 12 months in advance of the unitary authority? I am a democrat—I went into politics because I feel passionately about democracy and accountability. Is it right and correct to get rid of such an election and for people to sit as representatives illegitimately?

I must praise the work of the leader of Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council, Mr. Peter Nutting. He is doing a brilliant job in making the accession to a unitary authority work as well as possible, and I applaud him for it. Like me, he fought against the unitary authority, but he is now determined to do everything possible to move to the unitary authority. I should like publicly to acknowledge his work.

I should also like to praise—sincerely—the chief executive of Shropshire county council, Mrs. Carolyn Downs. She obviously had to implement and undertake the policies of the Conservative-controlled county council when it pursued its wish for a unitary authority. Regrettably, we disagreed on many occasions on the matter, but I must put on record that I admire her stamina and determination to ensure that what she felt was right for Shropshire was implemented. I acknowledge her hard work on the matter and the achievements of Shropshire county council—it has achieved so much with so little money. The Minister will be aware that there are good, average and poor chief executives. Mrs. Carolyn Downs is an excellent chief executive. The Department for Communities and Local Government could gain a great deal by learning how Mrs. Downs manages to achieve such extraordinary results with so little funding.

The Labour Government are determined to focus on the redistribution of wealth—to me, that is a cornerstone of socialism. Of course, Shropshire is a net contributor to the Exchequer—I have tabled many questions on how much tax Salopians pay and how much we receive, and there is no doubt that Shropshire is a huge net contributor to the Exchequer. We have a similar population to the London borough of Ealing, yet we receive a fraction of its funding. The Minister would be alarmed by a comparison of what the Government spend on Ealing and Shropshire. I am in the process of producing a pamphlet on the differences in funding between Shropshire and neighbouring Telford and Wrekin. I shall send a copy to the Minister, so that he can see how two communities, cheek by jowl, receive huge differences in funding for essential public services.

When preparing for the debate, I spoke with Mrs. Laura Rowley, the director of resources at Shropshire county council, who helped me to articulate some points to put to the Minister. In Shropshire, there are tremendous pressures on services for older people. The number of over-85s in Shropshire is twice the national average. That is important because a tremendous amount of social service support is needed for people in the last two years of their lives. Having such a huge number of elderly senior citizens will obviously have an impact on the social services that the unitary authority will provide when it comes into being.

Shrewsbury was voted one of the best places in England to retire in a major national finding. I am pleased about that because the older a person gets, the more inclined they are to vote Conservative—wisdom comes with age. However, I should like the Minister to address the serious social services problem. The senior citizens forum in Shrewsbury is partly funded by the county council. I should like to tell the Minister what a tremendous job the forum does for senior citizens. Its leading representative, Mr. Bill Harris, has written to me. I shall give the letter to the Minister; I have a little dossier for him here with all the facts. Mr. Harris says:

“We believe that enabling the involvement of increasing numbers of older people in community affairs through frequent public meetings and coffee mornings, etc. is the way forward. This is part of our effort to increase membership numbers from the present 6,000.”

The forum has 6,000 members. I have never come across a body more adept and able at lobbying than the Shrewsbury senior citizens forum. I hope to hear from the Minister what sort of extra help his Government will give to the unitary authority, bearing in mind the demographics of Shropshire and how many senior citizens we have.

To move on to education—the most contentious point for me—Shropshire is ranked 145th of 149 local education authorities for funding. There is huge pressure on small rural village schools. According to the Minister for Schools and Learners, the Government have a specific policy of safeguarding rural schools, whereby they should be closed only in extremity, yet many rural village schools in my constituency have come under threat of closure, simply because we do not receive anything like as much money as other parts of the country. We get £200 less per child than Telford next door, never mind Ealing. That is simply unacceptable.

I recently visited St. Andrew’s school in Nesscliffe, where I saw for myself the extraordinary benefit to rural village life provided by such schools. It is important to keep rural schools going. I appeal to the Minister, who knows from his own county of Gloucestershire how important rural village schools are and how vital it is to save them. I do not know whether it was broadcast in Gloucestershire, but on Central news last week, the Government announced an extra £28 million for schools in the black country. My goodness me, I should like to see something like that in Shropshire. Interestingly, the black country is full of Labour marginals, so it is perhaps not surprising that the £28 million will go there, rather than to solidly Conservative Shropshire. Never mind; I hope that the Minister will take my views on board.

An independent report on sparsity was sent to the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was funded partly by Shropshire county council and was submitted to the Department in 2006. It is important, because it highlights the cost of providing services across Shropshire—a huge rural county—due to the sparsely populated rural areas within the county. Scotland takes sparsity into consideration, using measures of dispersion when distributing finances throughout the country. My understanding is that Shropshire is treated similarly to Cumbria. More work must be done to differentiate the rural counties. The population in Cumbria is far more fixed in certain areas that are close to one another and large parts of the county are empty. In Shropshire, rural communities are spread out far more. That is why it costs even more to provide services in Shropshire than in Cumbria. I hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns about funding for sparsity. He knows as well as I do the huge increase in transportation costs and all the other costs involved in providing services in rural communities, and I hope that he will be able to say something on that point.

The Government trumpeted their actions on concessionary fares. I have spoken to many people in Shropshire who are disabled and who say, “It’s all well and good having a national scheme, but in parts of Shropshire at the moment, that scheme only operates after 9.30 am.” Many senior citizens want to make use of that service to go to work, and most people start work before 9.30. It is a marvellous policy to ensure funding for free bus services for people who are disabled and senior citizens, more and more of whom now have to go to work to make ends meet. If the Government are serious about the scheme, it is important that it should operate before 9.30. I look forward to hearing when sufficient money will be given to ensure that people who are disabled and senior citizens have free bus transport before 9.30.

A constituent, a lovely young lady called Ellie Johnson, came to see me. She is the designated nurse for looked-after children in Shropshire. She is responsible for 400 children in care homes around Shropshire. There is only one such nurse, and 29 hours a week is all that the council seems to have money for. Interestingly, 50 per cent. of those children are not from Shropshire, but from other parts of the country. Because Shropshire is such a beautiful county, many care homes set up business there, bringing in such children. It is important that the Government should acknowledge that Shropshire is dealing with far more vulnerable children than the average for a county its size. We are a magnet for disadvantaged children who need care. The dedicated nurse provides various vaccinations—she spoke to me about the importance of ensuring that vaccinations are given for cervical cancer—and advice on smoking, drugs and sexual health. All those issues are being raised with the children.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I shall end by saying that I hope that the Minister has realised the extent of my passion for proper and fair funding for Shropshire unitary authority when it comes into existence. His Government have a policy to roll out unitary authorities throughout the rest of the country, and if he wants them to work well, I urge him to help us to help the excellent chief executive, Carolyn Downs, and the Conservative-controlled unitary authority—it will undoubtedly be Conservative controlled after the elections next year. I hope that he will help us to make it a success by giving us adequate and fair funding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on sticking up for his patch and on his contribution. I always find his contributions in the House to be passionate and sometimes amusing. He has provided a bit of both today.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the leader of his local council and his local chief executive, to whom he is obviously close and with whom he has a good rapport and has worked closely over the years. Another good and effective local councillor is Malcolm Pate, who is a Conservative councillor and leader of the county council. The hon. Gentleman opened by saying that the Labour Government have been cynical—that was cruel, to say the least—in imposing these measures on the people of Shropshire, but closer analysis bears out the fact it was Councillor Pate who pushed forward those ideas as a local Conservative councillor. It is well worth remembering that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about incineration and the dangers for his constituency from having an incinerator. He will be aware, as I am, that under the old structure, incineration would have been the responsibility not of his district authority, but of the county council. The position is similar on my patch where my district council, Gloucester city council, is against incineration, but the county council is trying to impose it in or around my constituency. If we had a unitary authority, at least Gloucester city councillors would be able to have their voice heard in trying to block that incinerator. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s local councillors will, as part of his new unitary authority, have their voices heard in that debate. Such matters are well worth recalling.

The hon. Gentleman talked about having an election this year. I assume that that will be to the existing structure, because the new council will come into being in April or May next year. I fully understand why there would not be elections this year for an authority that will not begin to exist until the subsequent year. There is no political cynicism in that, and the reality is that practical changes must be made with the change to a unitary structure.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments about accepting the change, and his debate was really about other matters concerning funding. One of the merits of unitary authorities that people often mention in my area is not least the savings. In Gloucestershire, unitaries will probably bring about £16 million of annual savings. I understand that Shropshire is looking to save around £9 million a year, every year, which will have a direct consequence on the case that he was making for local funding and what Shropshire could do with that funding when it does not have one authority with responsibility for roads and another with responsibility for road humps on those roads, or one authority with responsibility for pavements and another with responsibility for shrubberies by those pavements. It is small wonder that many of our constituents find that farcical and sometimes bureaucratic, and it is probably fair to say that sometimes even elected members of a local authority are not sure what one local authority does and what another does.

The hon. Gentleman talked passionately about other areas and how they seemed to do better than his locality. I am sure that he is aware that formulae are at work and that they often reflect deprivation issues. I clearly recall hearing him on the radio during the 2001 general election campaign when he was a younger man—he is still a young man—making a passionate case for why Ealing, of all places, although he was a parliamentary candidate there, should receive more funding rather than less funding, which could then be spread elsewhere. That is also worth recalling, because I do not think he was opposing the formula at that time when he was doing those interviews.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of rural issues such as transport and schools, and made a fair point. Issues concerning rurality and sparsity are taken into consideration, particularly when considering the older population. He also talked about social care. When considering the formulae for social services, sparsity is taken into account, whether in his area of Shropshire or mine of Gloucestershire.

I have heard the hon. Gentleman during Prime Minister’s questions ask why all the money in his locality goes to Telford. I can think of an example in my constituency of inner-city schools receiving via the county council—the top-tier authority—funding of less than £3,000 a child. I also know of a school in the county that has just 12 pupils and receives an average of £8,700 a child. I suggest that that is not fair either.

The hon. Gentleman passionately made the case for pensioners and their right to free travel on buses. If he were on his party’s Front Bench, I would ask him whether it is a policy commitment to introduce free travel for pensioners before 9.30 in the morning. He is well-read and intelligent, and I know that he is aware that the Government are pouring nearly £220 million a year into the new scheme, which is making a real difference to pensioners throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about a report by SPARSE—a grouping of the most rural local authorities in England—to which his own local authority contributed. It was given to us in July 2006. The Department was not convinced by it, and I will explain why. We do not accept the contention that it costs, on average, 85 per cent. more to deliver services in rural areas. The research did not look at all local government services. Instead, it focused on a small number of local government and NHS services, the costs of which are most affected by population dispersal. The work to establish the costs was entirely theoretical and took no account of the fact that, by their nature, rural areas tend to have lower levels of provision for some services. It contained no comparison with the costs of service delivery—I am thinking of wages and housing issues—in urban areas such as London or Birmingham. However, we acknowledge that it costs more to deliver some council services in rural areas, such as those that involve travel or transport. For example, household rubbish collection, help for the elderly and responding to a crime costs more in some rural areas. For that reason, the funding formula for older people social services, education, police and the environmental, protective and cultural services contain adjustments that direct extra resources to sparsely populated areas.

We are also aware of the approach taken in Scotland to the funding of rural areas, which the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. I note that he suggested that Shropshire’s pattern of settlement is very like that in Scotland. However, I would say that in general, the patterns of settlement in the two countries are very dissimilar.

We have had a very constructive debate. It was not just about unitary authorities—I think we have moved on from that debate, as some of the hon. Gentleman’s local councillors, such as Councillor Pate, would welcome. We must now consider how we can best make the unitary authority work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find in the coming weeks, months and years that the local case for a unitary authority—the reduction in bureaucracy, the better working between local agencies and the projected savings of £9 million a year—is something that the local taxpayer will particularly value. I hope that he will feel that Shrewsbury and Atcham can, in many ways, have an enhanced voice at the table rather than, at times, a weaker one. I understand where he is coming from. Speaking as someone who has a district and a county authority, I can say that sometimes the district authority cannot be heard, not least on issues such as incineration, as he mentioned. However, we have moved on from that debate.

I hope that there will continue to be constructive meetings with local politicians, my Department and the local authority that is trying to fulfil such measures. I know that my Department and the local authority are meeting on a monthly basis.

During the break, I handed the Minister a dossier of Shropshire county council’s achievements. Will he join me in congratulating the council on those achievements and take on board the statement that I made about the excellent chief executive and how other parts of the country could learn from our experience?

We are always very keen to learn from best practice wherever it is around the country, including Shropshire. I am very happy to congratulate Shropshire county council on all the good things that it has managed to achieve over the years.